I Like to Watch

The unrelenting darkness of "Breaking Bad" makes the homicide detective show "Castle" look like a fairy tale by comparison.

Published March 8, 2009 2:51PM (EDT)

Don't be fooled by the gloom and doom in the headlines. America has always had a knack for beating back the darkness with a collective, willful suspension of disbelief. Denial is part of our national character. While the Japanese embrace melancholy through poetry, the Irish greet despair with boozy enthusiasm, Siberian nomads acknowledge countless dark omens in their midst, and the French curse and weep over red wine and strong cigarettes, Americans spackle over the darkness with the manufactured cheer of "Happy Days" and Happy Meals, Dance-a-thons and Toyotathons, Love Bugs and "Love Boat."

No matter what you read on the front page of the paper, it's nothing that a few soothing nacho platters and a visit to the local multiplex can't erase. When Americans congregate in groups, some bad man with a microphone is always there to encourage us to Do the wave! Raise the roof! Get jiggy wit it! Celebrate good times, come on! From movie theaters to baseball games to state fairs to pep rallies, we're not allowed to simply stand in one place, feeling ambivalent.

Americans are made uncomfortable by simple expressions of indifference -- or worse yet, open, direct admonitions of fear, dread or sadness. We leave upbeat, one-line Facebook-status-update suicide notes. We don't suffer, we "remain strong." More than anything else, we deeply appreciate the outpouring of support we have received during this difficult time.

Bad company

Against this backdrop of forced optimism, AMC's "Breaking Bad" (premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, March 8) stands out like a chain-smoking cutter at cheerleading camp. "Breaking Bad" isn't an American TV show. It's not a TV show at all. It's a ruthless, rambling art film that stumbled out of your local indie theater and wandered into cable's scrappy, untamed back country.

Watch a few minutes of "Breaking Bad" and it's not hard to see why Bryan Cranston's restrained performance as Walt White, a chemistry teacher-turned-drug-kingpin in suburban Albuquerque, N.M., won him an unexpected Emmy last year. At the start of the first season, Walt was teetering on the brink of financial collapse in the wake of a dire cancer diagnosis. Faced with insolvency, an unexpectedly pregnant wife and a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Cranston did what any man in his position might do: He teamed up with a no-account loser of a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and started cooking up high-grade crystal meth out of the kid's Winnebago.

The first season yanked viewers into Walt's crumbling life with brute force, taking us along for one depraved encounter after another with Albuquerque's unsavory drug underworld. All the while, Walt neglected to inform his wife, Skyler (Anna Drum), or son, Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte), of his diagnosis, not to mention his freelance career as a meth lab chemist. As a result, Walt's anguish was unrelenting from the beginning of the season to the end, from struggling with whether or not to kill a drug dealer in Jesse's basement who was sure to kill Walt if he was set free, to dodging the growing suspicions of his overgrown frat boy brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the head of the DEA. Aside from Hank and his compulsive, cheery-but-merciless wife, Skyler's sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), show creator Vince Gilligan offered us hardly a glimmer of hope over the course of those first seven episodes. So why couldn't we look away? Sinking into a pit of despair every time we watched, we'd have to remind ourselves after each episode, "At least I'm not that guy."

But even with its occasional forays into comedy, "Breaking Bad" remains far too oppressively bleak to approach the giddy darkness of schadenfreude. When Nate of "Six Feet Under" hit the floor with a brain ailment right after cheating on Brenda, we giggled in spite of ourselves. When Tony looked poised to have his brains blown out while scarfing down onion rings, we sat on our hands in breathless anticipation. When Don Draper lights up his 15th cigarette of the day and opts out of returning home to his wife and kids, we live vicariously through those strong martinis and illicit affairs, even as we can see Don turning his back on everything that's genuine and real in his life for an escapist fantasy.

Walt doesn't have the same flair as his fellow cable antiheroes, or their ability to infuriate us with their slippery charms, even as we begrudgingly forgive them their trespasses. Instead of possessing the more common cable-leading-man combinations of charisma and impulsiveness, Walt is reserved and uncomfortable and in most episodes, he sweats more than he actually speaks. Walt is the ordinary guy in the ugly plaid shirt and cheap khakis. He's a pragmatic dying man, desperate to provide for his family once he's gone. It's this ability to show us Walt's inner turmoil, instead of turning him into an explosive, colorful live wire, that won Cranston the Emmy.

But can we hang on for another tour through this cheerless landscape? The second season begins with some small hope that Walt and Jesse might score some serious walking-around money in a matter of weeks. Could Walt actually end up in his wife and son's good graces? Could Jesse suddenly be empowered to do something meaningful with his life?

No way. Instead, a simple drug-for-money exchange with a local kingpin turns unexpectedly ugly, and Walt and Jesse find themselves fearing for their lives and desperately clawing their way out of a series of increasingly dire situations, from trying to get a homicidal maniac drug dealer to snort some poisonous crystal meth that's sure to kill him to attempting to cover their tracks as an increasingly suspicious DEA begins circling. The bleakness of this picture is summed up nicely by Walt when he finds himself having to explain his erratic behavior to a psychiatrist: "My wife is 7 months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead."

But most of the time, Walt is far less explicit. One night when Walt looks distraught and Skyler asks him if there's something wrong, all he can say is, "I don't even know where to begin." More than the disturbing scenes with sadistic thugs or thoughtless addicts, the scenes between Walt, a dying man, and Skyler, his depressed, lonely wife, are almost too much to bear. It's never been quite clear what drew these two together, or why they stick together now. Sometimes you just want them to break a smile or share a moment of connection. Instead, every scene seems to end either in silent suffering and abject misery.

The mostly comical scenes involving Hank, then, offer a rare reprieve from hell. But that makes sense, since even hell is a big joke to Hank. Even as he's rallying the troops around hunting down a drug kingpin, Hank can't help chuckling when he recounts the story of the kingpin's associate who "got his arm crushed clean off" and bled to death: "Anyone see the photos? They're on my Web site. Hilarious."

"Breaking Bad" has so many redeeming qualities, from its low-key, almost mean-spirited sense of humor to its stark, artistic shots of the Albuquerque sky to the patient pace with which its story unfolds, that it seems a shame to miss any of it just because we're accustomed to more sugary, cheerful tales. Even so, watching this show can feel like stumbling onto online photos of a poor guy who bled to death from a crushed arm. As much as you admire the gall of the guy who put those photos up, you'll still end up depressed anyway.

Murder, he wrote

If "Breaking Bad" represents how the heaviness of cable dramas often needs to be leavened with a little charm and humor, ABC's "Castle" (premieres 10 p.m. Monday, March 9) reflects how charm and humor can sometimes take over a network drama so entirely that it's easy to lose sight of the substance beneath the witty banter.

In fact, "Castle" may be the most lighthearted, carefree procedural drama in the history of television. Following in the flirtatious, love-hate footsteps of "Moonlighting," "Castle" presents the story of a sassy, beautiful homicide detective who's forced to allow a dashing, famous author of bestselling murder mysteries to accompany her on the job for the sake of his research. Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion) is beginning a new series of mysteries, and Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) is going to be the basis for his new character.

Not a terrible premise, and as I've said, "Castle" certainly has its charms. Rick Castle brings a murder mystery author's perspective to crime solving. "That would make a better story," he sometimes blurts when he considers a more far-fetched alternative explanation for a murder in the middle of an investigation, and of course, half the time he's right. Fillion does a nice job of capturing Castle's mixture of earnest good guy and slick, famous author on the make. The dialogue is reasonably smart and funny.

Even so, it all feels so written at times. Take this exchange:

Rick: When I'm writing a new character, there's no telling when inspiration might strike.

Kate: I thought I was your inspiration.

Rick: Oh you are, detective, and in so many ways.

Kate: Yeah, well, your inspiration might strike you sooner than you think.

Cute and clever, sure, but this isn't the way real people talk. There are lots and lots of scenes like this one, scenes where Rick and Kate say things like, "Why can't you just admit I was right?" and "You know, for a minute there, you actually made me believe that you were human." It's all so "Moonlighting," so David and Maddie, so utterly, thoroughly played.

I'd like to fall for "Castle," but ultimately there's not that much there to love. The show is a lot like one of the bestselling murder mysteries its title character pens: You might stay up late reading furiously, but minutes after you put down the book, you've forgotten half of it.

Then again, with so many dark clouds on the horizon, it's no shock that viewers might prefer a fluffy, forgettable page-turner like  "Castle" to a disturbingly dark, unforgettable indie film like "Breaking Bad." Our world has changed dramatically overnight, and suddenly front-page stories about former executives taking jobs as janitors, former NFL players lost at sea and homeless children sleeping in unheated garages feel less like depressing headlines to sidestep on the way to the funny pages, and more like inauspicious omens at a moment of extreme reckoning. Bestselling author and sexy divorcé Rick Castle may represent the American dream incarnate when he signs autographs on fawning fans' bodies or chats breezily about golf with notable judges, but our new reality may be closer to Walt White's: broke, haggard, sick, alienated and desperate. Oh, what a feeling!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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